It was Vladimir of Kiev, father of the Russian state, who is said to have rejected abstinent Islam in the 10th century. Drinking alcohol remains an integral part of Russian culture and society, with beer far more popular than vodka in the city's many bars. Cafes are also wonderful places to hang out, and pack your dancing slippers as the clubbing scene is vibrant.
Vodka & Beer
The word ‘vodka’ is the diminutive of voda, the Russian word for water, so it means something like ‘a wee drop’. Russians sometimes drink vodka in moderation, but more often it’s tipped down in swift shots, often followed by a pickle (snacking apparently stops you from getting drunk). Some traditional Russian restaurants in St Petersburg serve their own flavoured vodkas (try the horseradish, cranberry or sea buckthorn, if available) and polugar, a historic form of vodka made from bread.
You may be surprised to learn that pivo (beer) is actually Russia’s most popular alcoholic drink. The market leader is local big brewer Baltika, and another popular local brand is Vasileostrovskaya, named after Vasilyevsky Island, where it is brewed. However, as with the rest of Russia, St Petersburg is in the grip of a craze for craft brewing – small-batch ales from microbreweries both local and international. Craft-beer bars are scattered across the city and worth searching out.
Where to Drink
Back in the day, the equivalent of the local pub was a ryumochnaya, which comes from the word ryumka (shot). These were pretty grim places, serving up sto gramm (100 grams) of a spirit, and little else. There are still a handful of these places around.
In recent years, St Petersburg’s drinking possibilities have expanded exponentially. Now, drinkers can take their pick from wine bars, cocktail bars, pubs, sports bars, microbreweries and more. In the summer months, there is an additional assortment of letniye sady (summer gardens) scattered around town. It’s also perfectly acceptable to go into almost any restaurant and just order drinks.
Nightlife in St Petersburg
St Petersburg boasts a sophisticated array of live-music joints, jazz venues, dance clubs, karaoke places, stylish bars, British- and Irish-style pubs and even its fair share of hipster hangouts. Dumskaya ul, a side street off Nevsky pr, at the junction with ul Lomonosova is St Petersburg’s drinking quarter packed with interchangeable dive bars. After midnight at the weekends, it’s a sight to see. For more bohemian venues, head to Vosstaniya and along the Fontanka, where you’ll find lots of cool bars and clubs. Also get your hotel or Russian friends to make bookings and provide directions to one of the city's uber-cool speakeasy-style bars, typically hidden in secret locations.
Cafes & Anti-cafes
A few Russian coffee-shop chains have followed their Western counterparts and opened up outlets on every corner. Rest assured, you will never be far from a Coffee House (Кофе Хауз), Ideal Cup (Идеальная Чашка) or Shokoladnitsa (Шокoладница), and can even find well-known international brands such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee. But the independent cafes earn far higher marks for atmosphere and artistry, and are well worth seeking out. Preparation methods include siphon and pour-over, and devotion to creating the perfect brew is nothing short of fanatical.
There's also the local phenomenon known as anti-cafes or time cafes where your bill is based on the time you spend in the venue, and covers free-flowing hot and soft drinks and snacks. The concept has also broadened out into a time-based bar!
Need to Know
Pubs & bars 6pm to 6am, although many stay open ‘until the last customer’ (ie as long as you’re still buying drinks, the staff will be there to serve them to you).
Cafes typically 8am to 10pm.
Clubs 11pm to 6am, with many only open on Friday and Saturday.
Service & Tipping
In most cafes and bars you’ll be waited upon. Only in rougher, more crowded places will you usually have to go to the bar yourself. You’ll rarely be expected to tip, unless you’re in a very high-end place.
Alcohol is legal on the street, but banned in the metro. The legal drinking age is 18, though it’s rarely enforced. It is illegal for shops to sell any alcohol between 10pm and 11am – so buy in advance or drink in a bar or restaurant between these times.
Russia introduced a nationwide smoking ban in mid-2014 and it's strictly enforced. You're unable to smoke in restaurants, cafes, bars or hotels, and can only now do so outside.